Congress, NASA

NASA CFO’s Energy Department nomination withdrawn

The White House has withdrawn the nomination of NASA’s current chief financial officer (CFO) to a position at the Energy Department. In a press release Wednesday, The White House said it was withdrawing Beth Robinson’s nomination to be Under Secretary of Energy, nearly a year after first announcing the nomination.

No reason was given for the withdrawal, but her nomination faced opposition from one senator because of her tenure as NASA’s CFO. Last October, Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) announced he had placed a hold on her nomination because of concerns he had about withholding of funding for some key NASA projects, like the Space Launch System (parts of which are being built at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans) to comply with the agency’s interpretation of termination liability requirements. In his letter to Robinson, which he released last October when he announced the hold, he also sought information on alleged use of personal email accounts by NASA officials to conduct agency business.

31 comments to NASA CFO’s Energy Department nomination withdrawn

  • Dark Blue Nine

    Great, now the SLS black hole is bringing down the Energy Dept., too.

  • Hiram

    Well, it’s pretty obvious that if you want to preserve the SLS, you need to derail the appointment of an Energy Undersecretary. Goodness knows the damage an Energy Undersecretary could do to SLS! But really, if Vitter had his head screwed on straight, he’d realize that getting Robinson out of the NASA CFO position might better protect his Michaud projects. One has to assume that Michaud will, henceforth, get special attention by the NASA CFO.

  • Someone has to pay for NASA’s slow walk of the SLS program. It might as well be Beth Robinson. Congratulations to Boeing for winning the $2.8 billion SLS first stage contract.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “Someone has to pay for NASA’s slow walk of the SLS program. It might as well be Beth Robinson.”

      Robinson “slow walked [sic]” nothing. She required contractors to follow federal law regarding termination liability. A law that Congress created and Vitter should be aware of. Duh…

      “Congratulations to Boeing for winning”

      Win? It was sole-sourced. Congratulations to Boeing and NASA for taking three years to negotiate a non-competed, cost-plus contract.

      “the $2.8 billion SLS first stage contract.”

      Yay, only $1.4B per SLS core produced! Add in the $1 billion per MPCV, and we’re only up to $2.4B per mission! Throw in the boosters, civil servants, and NASA overhead, and we’re looking at over $3 billion per MPCV/SLS mission!

      That’s only 6x larger than the $500 million we promised a couple years ago!

      And only 2x larger than the average cost of a STS mission, which was dictated by 35-year old technology!

      We are cost containment, engineering excellence, and human space exploration progress in action!

  • Egad

    Indeed, the Office of the CFO is almost certainly at the center of the current SLS KDP-C, er, *situation*, whatever it is. It’s perhaps premature to draw a connection between that and the withdrawal of Ms. Robinson’s nomination, but it will be very interesting to see if any more shoes drop.

  • Amightywind: Congratulations to Boeing for winning the $2.8 billion SLS first stage contract.

    For (count them) one expendable stage. Which, I believe, is about twice what the entire COTS / CCiCap projects have spent to date developing two cargo vehicles and two spanking new medicum-class launch vehicles that are currently operational, plus bringing close to flight two capsules and one winged shuttle. Yes, Boeing, thanks a lot.

    – Donald

    • Michael Kent

      It’s a huge improvement over Ares I, which spent $10.5 billion for one non-representative expendible test stage 1/3 the size of SLS. Chances are Boeing will make SLS work.

      But it’s still a big waste of money for the reason you state.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “For (count them) one expendable stage.”

      The $2.8 billion covers two SLS cores (or expendable stages) for the EM-1 and EM-2 launches. Per Space News:

      “On June 30, NASA and Boeing signed a six-and-a-half-year, $2.8 billion SLS Stages Contract that runs through 2021 and calls for the company to deliver two SLS cores, including hydrogen and oxygen tanks, and avionics.”

      http://www.spacenews.com/article/civil-space/41139nasa-boeing-finalize-28b-sls-core-stage-contract

      But $1.4 billion for one lousy rocket core is still ungodly expensive. That’s almost the entire average cost of an STS mission back in the day.

      • Egad

        But $1.4 billion for one lousy rocket core is still ungodly expensive.

        I’d guess that the $1.4e9 doesn’t include the cost of the RS-25D engines, which are currently GFE. Come EM-5 (or earlier, if any of the engines now in storage have problems), the cost of new RS-25D/E engines will have to be factored in.

      • Michael Kent

        That Space News article raised more questions than answers.

        It says that the $2.8 billion SLS contract Boeing just received from NASA includes the $1.66 billion Boeing has already received for SLS & Ares I work dating back to 2007. Which means that Boeing’s work on the SLS core stage, upper stage, and avionices for the next 6-1/2 years is worth $1.14 billion.

        SLS is consuming $2 billion per year, or $13 billion over the same time period. If the core stage, upper stage, and avionices of the SLS combined only make up 9% of the cost of the SLS, what is the other 91% of the money being spent on?

        Am I missing something?

        • Michael Kent

          It seems the first thing I’m missing is the proper spelling of “avionics.”

          That aside, upon re-reading the article it seems I missed the fact that the upper stage contract is a separate contract totaling $307 million. So adjusting my figures, Boeing will get $1.45 billion over the next 6-1/2 years for the SLS core stages, upper stages, and avionics. Or about 11%, not 9% of the total funds for SLS in that timeframe.

          So my overall point still stands. Where is the other 89% of the money going?

          • Malmesbury

            “Where is the other 89% of the money going?”

            Lots of make work….

            Take a look at the Orion heat shield.

            The first one was hand made – guys with caulking guns filling 10s of thousands of cells with AVCOAT. Then carefully x-rayed. Then any voids are drilled and refilled. Lather rise repeat. Then the heat shield is machined into shape.

            For the next one, apparently it will automated (yes, the flight to test the heat shield won’t be using the heat shield that people will fly with). So there is a group designing and building the automation for that.

            Adds up to alot of money in development. Keeps the lights on in a lot of buildings. Which keeps alot of senators happy.

          • Egad

            It seems the first thing I’m missing is the proper spelling of “avionics.”

            I kind of like “avionices.”

            Matrix, matrices; vortex, vortices; codex, codices; avionics, avionices. Makes sense, kinda.

            Kleenex, kleenices, etc.

          • Dick Eagleson

            I went back and gave that Space News piece a more careful re-read. I conclude you are asking an excellent question. SLS, in total, is budgeted at about $2 billion a year. Over the seven years between now and 2021, that’s $14 billion. This Boeing contract seems to cover most of what an SLS mission needs except for the solid boosters and the Orion capsule which are covered under other contracts. It also doesn’t cover the pair of service modules ESA is supplying, but that’s another separate known deal. I’ll confess I have no more clue than you as to where most of the money is supposed to go.

            As entertaining and, no doubt, accurate as Malmesbury’s comment is, I don’t think it advances the search for an answer. Orion is a separate hyper-expensive, wasteful and opaque NASA program from SLS.

            By all means keep the rest of us updated on whatever you manage to find out toward an answer to your question. Just when you think SLS and Orion can’t get any more Byzantine and mysterious, they manage to top themselves.

            • Malmesbury

              “As entertaining and, no doubt, accurate as Malmesbury’s comment is, I don’t think it advances the search for an answer. Orion is a separate hyper-expensive, wasteful and opaque NASA program from SLS.”

              I was using the heat shield as an illustration of how this happens using a related program.

              I am quite certain that behind the curtain SLS is the same….

              - Different structures, hand made, for each vehicle.
              - Elaborate hand work.
              - Elaborate analysis and management of individual parts.
              - Elaborate efforts to automate said hand work in x number of ways.
              - Lots of tests, experiments and side projects to try things out that will never be used.

              It is about finding work for all the idle hands.

              • Dick Eagleson

                Hey, I’m with you 100%. Especially on that Orion heat shield thing. An alleged “deep space” craft that’ll burn to a cinder if it tries re-entering any faster than from a lunar mission suggests that NASA has been defining “deep” pretty radically down. All the touch labor involved in fabricating the thing is just icing on the cake.

                As to all the other touch labor that doubtless goes into the stratospheric costs of SLS components, I’m sure you’re also right. The aerospace industry has not, in general, been a big user of industrial robotics. They’re happy enough to carve their parts with state-of-the-art CNC machine tools, but after that, the process of aircraft construction would look familiar to anyone on the Rouge Plant line in 1908. Spacecraft production “lines” are even worse.

                In contrast, I strongly suspect that one of Elon’s secret weapons in keeping costs below what anyone in the legacy aerospace world thinks possible is aggressive automation. I don’t know how SpaceX assembles Merlin 1-D’s, for example, but I know Elon employs industrial engineers at Tesla who have developed one of the most highly automated robotic car assembly lines in the world. I’d be amazed if these same guys haven’t been splitting their time between Tesla and SpaceX. A Merlin 1-D is a lot smaller, lighter and more conveniently shaped for automated assembly than a Tesla Model S, for example.

                Another clue. Much of Tesla is Bay Area located, but there’s a biggish building with the Tesla logo on it right next to the even bigger-ish SpaceX headquarters and factory building in Hawthorne. I don’t know what goes on in that Hawthorne Tesla building, but maybe it’s where the industrial engineers prototype their automation systems. The ones for Tesla go north and the ones for SpaceX go next door. That would certainly explain a lot.

                As supporting evidence for this surmise, I am particularly struck by the quite modest difference between the price of a commercial Falcon 9 satellite launch quoted on SpacceX’s web site ($61.2 milllion) and the price quoted for a Falcon Heavy launch ($85 million). There is cross-feed plumbing to account for, to be sure, but an FH is, to a good first-order approximation, just three F9 first stages strapped together. The FH price suggests the incremental price of an F9-type core is less than $12 million. The engines are supposed to account for about 75% of that, so that would be $9 million. As there are nine engines per core, that makes the fully-burdened price of a Merlin 1-D, as it reaches the customer, right around a million bucks. If this is even close to being true it has to be because SpaceX has automated the pluperfect hell out of Merlin 1-D assembly.

              • Vladislaw

                I had read that Musk went to the the auto engine manufacturing industry to learn about production methods that could be brought over to rocket engine production.

              • Dick Eagleson

                I hadn’t read that, but it’s completely consistent with what he’s done at Tesla. That’s why I figured it was what he did at SpaceX too. The listed prices for F9 and FH just seem to neatly back up this interpretation.

  • Egad

    Back to Ms. Robinson:

    I was researching her CFO tenure a little and came across the following snippet from last August. Whether it has any current relevance, I could not say.

    http://aviationweek.com/space/garver-quits-nasa-alpa

    Garver Quits NASA For ALPA
    Aug 6, 2013 Frank Morring, Jr.

    [snip]

    Garver’s departure will come on the heels of Elizabeth Robinson, the agency’s chief financial officer, who has been named under secretary of energy. Robinson and Garver were staunch allies in the often-heated management policy debates that pitted them against more traditional NASA managers, including Administrator Charles Bolden.

    • Egad

      more traditional NASA managers

      From his bio, I’d guess that Mr. Lightfoot is in that category, but does anybody here know if that’s actually true?

      • Interesting tidbit, and comes as no great surprise. Those two did a lot of damage to the space program. Good to see both of Musk’s moles chased from government.

        • Dick Eagleson

          They did no damage to the space program. It’s still bleedingout despite their best efforts. I’d compare them to a couple of E.R. nurses working for an attending physician with ADD and constantly bedeviled by Congressional gangbangers who kept sneaking into the O.R. to shoot or stab the patient again and again. I guess both got tired of being up to their knees in metaphorical blood and gore all the time. Can’t say I blame either one.

    • Hiram

      Garver and Robinson were well understood to be philosophically close on matters of agency funding priorities and general policy. I have to assume that Robinson’s nomination for DOE came as a result of her expression, to the Administration, that she was looking for an escape hatch. Without Garver fronting for her, Robinson probably felt much less influential as CFO. So I also have to assume that, if this nomination isn’t approved, she’ll find some other way to honorably extract herself from the CFO position.

      • Egad

        she’ll find some other way to honorably extract herself from the CFO position

        Yes, that’s my reading also. It’s sure what I’d do in her situation.

        Meanwhile, she’s still there in the CFO seat, which is probably a very uncomfortable place to be at the present time.

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